Harriett’s Gift

“You certainly do like yard work,” I called from my seat at the picnic table on Harriett’s screened-in porch as I waited impatiently for her to finish whatever it was she was doing in her yard that day in 1991. Since moving to the isolation of the Tahoe National Forest eight miles above Nevada City, I looked forward to the fiercely competitive rounds of Upwords that she and I played each afternoon, once she’d finished her chores for the day.

“I think of it as gardening,” she shot back, “not yard work.”

Though I’d known them only a few months, I loved our across-the-road neighbors already. Walt and Harriett had retired to their eight forested acres in the mountains after raising four strapping sons on a dairy ranch outside Santa Rosa. I guess you might term them old-fashioned farm folks—no-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth people whose door was never locked, whose dining table always had room for unexpected guests, and who would do anything for anyone, once they perceived the need.

Tall and lean, Walt had a full head of silvery waves. Strikingly handsome in his plaid shirts, he could tell a good story and laughed with gusto whenever a new one tickled his funny bone. In addition to his boys, he loved three things in life: Harriett, his bride of nearly fifty years; his 150-pound Lab-Saint Bernard cross named “Hercules,” or “Herky” for short; and his John Deere tractor. Next down the list was his love of professional sports, especially baseball. Then came politics—the conservative Republican kind. He had a well-equipped shop and could build or fix anything, from toys to cars to tractors to washing machines and chainsaws.

Sharp as a tack, Harriett was tiny. Just over five feet tall, she weighed fewer than ten pounds more than she’d weighed at fourteen, when she and Walt first fell in love. Her face was weathered and lined now, the penalty for a lifetime of days spent in the sun. She wore her brownish hair short-cropped, without much plan but easy to care for. Her long nails, strong enough to double as screwdrivers, belied her image as a farm wife. She was inordinately proud of them and kept them polished bright pink. It was her personality I found most fascinating, though. With an acerbic tongue and a dry wit, Harriett never rattled on mindlessly. More often she listened, a sly, barely discernible smile playing around the corners of her mouth, waiting for you to hang yourself. Then, if she had something to say, she said it. Slow to offer an opinion, when she did, there was no point in arguing. Most often, she was right.

“If you’re in a hurry, you could give me a hand hauling this stuff to the burn pile,” Harriett called.

And so began my education, my transformation, my rebirth. In the coming weeks and months, as I trailed after her, helping with the chores, I peppered her with questions: “What are those tall things with the purple flowers?” “Why are you hoeing around those bushes?” “Won’t coffee grounds kill the plants?” “Why are you putting Epsom salts in your watering can?” “Why are you digging up your beautiful iris?” “Why are you burying nails under those bushes?”

Patiently Harriett explained, her incredulity only thinly veiled that the college professor’s wife from Aptos could be so dumb. She taught me how to double-dig; how to gather flower heads in a brown paper sack, secure the top with a rubber band and place it in the sun for days in order to harvest the seeds; how to carefully pinch the spent flowers from rhododendrons to avoid snapping off next year’s blooming shoots; which bushes and trees to prune after their spring flowering and which later on, in the fall; and how to divide rhizomes and bulbs in order to start new clumps or share. She taught me about nitrogen and potassium and phosphorus in the soil and how to enrich it by using what others might term garbage: coffee grounds and tea bags, crushed eggshells, ashes from the woodstove, dog droppings, shredded newspapers, and leaves. She even told me the best garden gloves to buy, not the little winky ones in pretty pastels that are marketed to women in the garden centers, but the more reasonably priced, heavier ones made by Atlas that lasted a whole season even under constant assault by her long nails.

Before long I began gathering boulders and muscling together low retaining walls to create paths and planting beds around our new home across the road. But Harriett rolled her eyes at my frequent trips to the local nurseries. “It isn’t about spending money,” she snorted. “Why spend a fortune on all those commercial soil amendments when all you have to do is go into the forest with a rake, clear off the top layer of pine needles, and gather all the forest mulch you want, for nothing?” She believed in doing it the old-fashioned way: composting, propagating, dividing.

“But that takes so long,” I wailed.

Again Harriett rolled her eyes. “Gardening is about patience,” she said, “and you’ll value the results more if you do it right. Like children. Who’d value kids if you just bought them in batches at the store? It’s the hard work and care and time and love that are important, not instant gratification. It’s about creating something uniquely yours, something beautiful and worthwhile; something that will reward you anew every spring; something that will enrich your life year after year. Your garden doesn’t care how old you are, the size of your bank account, how many teeth you’ve lost, how much you weigh, what you’re wearing—or not wearing—or your position in the local social hierarchy. Let other women have their Valium, their therapists, their retreats, their endless books on meditation and self-improvement; you’ll never need ‘em. Your garden will be all the sustenance you ever need. You’ll never grow too old to cherish an early morning stroll along your paths, coffee cup in hand, visiting your garden family and cheerfully planning your day.”

Now, more than three decades later, Harriett and Walt are both gone. But Harriett’s influence is not. I’ve created three gardens since those long-ago days, each more elaborate than the last, and every morning, as I stroll, coffee cup in hand, I think of her and the precious wisdom she shared. I smile as I tend the descendants of her early generosity—iris and carpet bugle and lamb’s ears and a variety of dianthus I don’t even know the name of but which blooms vivid hot pink every May and June and scatters its seeds widely. “Fingernail-pink,” I call it. I think of Harriett every time I pinch my Vulcan rhododendrons, expertly preserving next spring’s show of brilliant scarlet flowers. I think about her as I pause, warming my back in a patch of early morning sunshine slanting down through the towering Ponderosas. I think of her and of the wealth of knowledge she shared, about gardening and about life. I think of Harriett and her gift and I give thanks.

Musings at First Light

It’s only five o’clock, but already I’m wide awake. What is it about this time of the day that I love so? Later on, the sun will arc high overhead, forcing the lizards and frogs to shelter from the blistering rays of another hot August afternoon. I’ll shelter too. But now, in the very early morning, the air is exquisite. It beckons. As soon as it’s ready, I pour my first mug of coffee and head outside. A slight breeze is cool and bracing and tingles on my arms and legs and the back of my neck. I breathe deeply, again and again, taking in this miracle of a fresh new day.

The first bird awakens and chirps its song of greeting. Two more join in. I feel a kinship with them. We’re all early birds.

I walk to the garden shed and turn on the pump so that once more a thin trickle of water gurgles over the brick edging of the upper pool into the lower, a soothing alto to the winged, chirping sopranos that now number a dozen. Soon, it’ll be an entire chorus.

Many years ago I planted water lilies in pots in the lower pool and stocked it with a dozen feeder fish I bought for practically nothing from a young kid working part-time at the pet store. But the kid couldn’t tell carp from koi—at that time I couldn’t either—and I ended up with as many koi as carp. They all grew quickly, were very tame, and would wriggle right up onto my palm for food. My favorite was a white butterfly koi. I named her Princess. She was beautiful—flowing, gossamer, four-inch fins and a small pinkish spot on her snout. Then one day she disappeared. I never knew what got her, but I felt terrible because she was so trusting, and that trust probably had cost her her life.

The rest of the fish multiplied rapidly, and soon the filter couldn’t keep up. The water turned to thick, smelly pea soup. Finally, I called a company that specialized in ornamental water features, and their crew came out and drained the pool and pulled all the plants and fish out and took them away in big barrels. They didn’t charge me a dime. In fact, they refurbished the filter, resealed the inside walls of the pool, and paid me several hundred dollars. I guess good-sized koi and water lilies bring good-sized prices.

I place my now empty cup on the bricks atop the wall of the lower pool and bend at the waist to pull a couple of weeds that have sprouted in the woolly thyme that eventually filled the spaces between the flagstones. It’s not a very ladylike posture, but my knees no longer bend effortlessly. Besides, no one else is up at this hour. I tell myself it is exercise and that it’s a good thing. At least I can still touch my toes.

An Anna’s humming bird comes streaking from nowhere and hovers at eye level a few feet in front of me, its wings a blur and its brilliant magenta throat flashing, signaling that the feeder tucked up under the clematis vine on the trellis above the back terrace is empty. I used to think these actions were random, but now I know they’re not. It’s a silent pact between the humming birds and me. I get the stool from the kitchen so I can reach the feeder, fill it with a four-to-one water-sugar mix, and return it to its hook. Within moments three or four of the Anna’s are vying for the first taste. Dipping and swooping, they will provide entertainment throughout the day, sometimes hovering a few moments just outside the open window above my desk and my computer, just to say thank you.

One thing in the garden inevitably leads to another. I’m reminded to refill the suet feeders hidden in the branches of the Japanese maples, out of reach of those pesky voles that have created a labyrinthine web of tunnels beneath my garden. There was a time when I battled them. I tried flooding them out with a hose and blocked their access by stuffing rocks into their adits. Neither worked. At the hardware store I bought gas bombs in a package; the label claimed they were “guaranteed to eradicate voles.” Hah! Hidden in the shadows, the critters watched and cackled among themselves. I gave up the fight. Unlike gophers, at least the voles don’t leave raw, ugly mounds behind as they drill. I have no idea what they do with the excess soil. They must eat clover seeds, though, because, industrious little farmers that they are, they poop the seeds out inside their tunnels, and the seeds then sprout and spread so that the voles have well-stocked pantries spaced conveniently all along their hallways. There was a time I zealously tackled the clover trails with my hand-weeder, but no more. With voles, you can’t win, unless you get a few cats at the shelter and keep them half-starved so they’re motivated. But the birds, especially baby California quail, are much easier prey than voles, so I no longer keep cats.

My second cup of coffee sustains me as I prowl the rest of the garden. This year, for some unexplained reason, the native oaks have been dropping leaves ever since June. Green ones, not brown. And dropping acorns too. You’d think, with last winter’s record rainfall, that the oaks would stay thick and lush well into fall. Maybe later I’ll call the agricultural extension office and ask about it. Or maybe I’ll just wait and let someone else do it. And I’m not going to rake the leaves, either, not yet. Let them swirl and play in the breeze. I’m not the perfectionist I used to be. And it’s a good thing, because I’m not as young as I once was. I’m more tolerant now—of others’ shortcomings as well as my own.

Bambi, Bambi

Except for a section of wrought-iron screen fencing along the upper street side—totally useless for keeping anything in or out—my garden is open to all. The wild critters were here long before we came along—preemptive rights, I think is the legal term—and they depend on the pond across the road below our property during the hot summer months in the Sierra Nevada foothills. It seemed only neighborly to preserve an unobstructed path for them to access the water.

It didn’t take long, though, for the deer to discover my garden affords a much closer water source, a straight-sided, two-level ornamental waterfall and pool that wrap partway around the back terrace. They also soon discovered I have plenty of fresh, green, growing things to nibble on. Mostly, they’re polite and limit their munching to the plants they like best, the six-foot-tall “carpet roses” and a few of the smaller hydrangeas in the shade garden. The deer don’t do any lasting damage. And they don’t touch my favorite azaleas and rhododendrons, or the daffodils in the early spring. Sometimes they take midday naps in the shade beneath the low-hanging branches of half a dozen redwoods below our meadow, but, otherwise, they generally meander through, have a little snack, then move on to the neighbors’ properties and the larger forested parcels farther up the mountain. I like knowing they’re around.

I first discovered how hospitable the deer find my garden one day years ago while puttering around outside—just pickin’ and pokin’, I call it. I noticed two rather strange leaves sticking up amid the groundcover alongside one of the paths. Furry, brownish points among the mottled green leaves. I stopped in my tracks. The strange leaves twitched, as though ruffled by a welcome breeze. Only there wasn’t any breeze. The small fawn lifted its head just enough to see whether I represented a threat, then nestled back down, folding its ears out of sight against its skull.

I remembered Harriett telling me one time that a mule deer will often hide her young fawn in the thickest foliage she can find, press her muzzle down on top of its head to instruct it stay put, wander off to graze a while on her own, and finally return for the baby a couple of hours later.

“But why doesn’t the fawn just scramble after her?” I asked.

“Right from the moment of their birth, fawns are programmed to obey instantly, without question. It’s a matter of survival. If the does don’t eat, there won’t be milk for the babies. Actually, they’re much better behaved than our own youngsters,” Harriett replied with a wry grin, remembering her own four rambunctious sons.

So this baby hadn’t been abandoned at all, merely dropped off at daycare. I slowly backed away and left it alone, and an hour later it was gone.

One of the highlights of spring in my garden is catching a glimpse of a brand new fawn wobbling along on spindly legs behind its mama as she makes her daily rounds. I usually see several each year. The spring of 2016 was no exception. One morning in early May, through the French door in the library, I spotted a doe and her new baby down in the Cedar Circle. I slipped outside for a better look. As I drew closer, Mama didn’t panic but moved slowly down the rock steps into the meadow. Bambi tottered along behind. I followed as far as the top step and from there watched as the two disappeared into the shadows beneath the redwoods on the far side.

Already very close to one of my Martha Stewart-green hoses, I decided to give the azaleas some extra water as I’d sprinkled on a little fertilizer the day before. Still gazing absentmindedly at the spot where the deer mama and baby had ambled into the trees below, I reached down for the nozzle with my left hand and at the same time leaned over to turn on the spigot with my right. Suddenly I got the fright of my life! On top of the neatly coiled hose, only inches from my hand, was something strange, round, and dark. I shrieked and jumped back, certain it was a coiled baby rattler and I was a goner. But it didn’t strike. It didn’t move at all, just lay there, motionless, looking like a wet, partially deflated football with mottled white spots.

Gradually my heart stopped pounding and my breathing slowed to normal. This fawn was much smaller than the first, no more than ten minutes old, still wet from the doe’s tongue where she’d eaten away the amniotic sac. Bambi Two!

I knew enough to leave the newborn alone, that the doe would return for it, so I went back into the house and continued to watch through the window. Sure enough, twenty minutes later mama came back alone. She licked the tiny creature all over and tried to nuzzle it to its feet, but it was so weak it couldn’t hold its head up, let alone stand. Mama left again.

Over the next several hours, she returned three more times but still couldn’t get the baby to its feet. It shuddered every few seconds but still didn’t lift its head. It occurred to me that the fawn needed nourishment to gain strength, but if it couldn’t stand, it couldn’t access the doe’s teats. I watched and fretted. Another hour passed.

Certain now that mama had abandoned this pint-sized infant, I couldn’t just sit by and do nothing. In the kitchen, I pulled out my Pyrex one-cup measure and poured in an ounce of evaporated milk, an ounce of warm water, and a couple of drops of Karo syrup. I found an ear syringe in the bathroom, swished it in rubbing alcohol, and washed and dried it. From the ragbag in the laundry room, I grabbed an old towel and headed for the Cedar Circle.

At first I thought the baby was dead, it was so still. Then it quivered, and its tiny sides rose and fell a time or two. I sat down on the ground, carefully wrapped the towel around the fawn, pulled it onto my lap, and began gently massaging it all over. In a few minutes the baby’s eyelids fluttered. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” I murmured softly as it fastened its gaze on my face. I saw no fear, only trust. With my left hand, I lightly grasped Bambi Two under its chin and nudged the ear syringe between its square white teeth. Big teeth for such a tiny baby. At first the milk dribbled out the sides of its mouth onto the towel, but as I kept stroking its throat with my thumb, finally it swallowed once, then twice. Then several more times. I continued gently caressing the baby all over until it fell asleep, then left it there atop the coiled hose, wrapped in the towel, and went back inside to make a phone call.

When I returned to the Cedar Circle twenty minutes later, Bambi Two was gone, leaving behind the towel nest. I began to search, first the rest of the Cedar Circle and then the Shade Garden. Climbing three more rock steps toward the utility corner—home to our air-conditioning unit and woodpile—out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of the baby, collapsing on the ground even as its mama disappeared around the corner of the house. Again, I wrapped the baby in the dish towel, massaged it all over, and fed it another ounce of formula.

By now it was late afternoon, time to make dinner and tend to other evening chores. Convinced I’d done all I could, I wrapped the baby up one final time and went inside for the night, wondering if I’d ensured its survival—or poisoned it with my makeshift formula.

The next morning the towel was there, but not the fawn. Had a coyote gotten it, or the bobcat some neighbors had reported seeing?

The story of Bambi Two spread quickly up and down our street. Everyone kept watch. After ten anxious days, Suzanne from next door ran over at dusk to tell me they’d just seen a mama deer with two fawns, one much larger than the other, crossing their front lawn.

I was elated! Hubby and I celebrated with a bottle of champagne.

It Takes a Village

Several weeks after the birth of the Bambi twins, I was seated one sunny morning in the breakfast room, paying bills and tending to the mound of paperwork that routinely accumulates on my desk. You know, activities like addressing birthday cards, reading again the most recent submissions of writer friends from my critique group, inventorying and updating a list of cleaning supplies in anticipation of my next trip down to Costco. The phone rang. It was Steve, our next-door neighbor.

“Hey, Pat. Say, I’ve just been out on the driveway—gonna wash my car—and I heard something strange coming from your backyard. Like a baby crying or something. Did you guys get a new puppy, too?”

“I wish,” I replied, “but no, no new puppy or kitten. I didn’t hear anything when I was out earlier with my coffee, but I’ll go out and have a look.”

I crossed the kitchen and stepped out through the French door onto the back terrace to listen. I heard only the gurgle of water cascading into the lower pool of our water feature and the whirr of humming-bird wings as several Anas swooped around the nectar feeder, attacking one another and vying for dominance. Somewhere in the distance, a Stellar’s Jay squawked. Nothing unusual.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, off to my right I caught sight of a doe and fawn just disappearing quickly through the Cedar Circle and down into the Shade Garden. I headed in that direction, but by the time I got there, they had bounded down the rock steps and disappeared into the redwoods. I proceeded on around the house to the front, but still I heard nothing strange. Maybe Steve was mistaken. Maybe what he heard was coming from Jay and Bonnie’s, his neighbors on the other side. They had a new labradoodle pup.

I strolled down the street in the direction of Steve’s driveway, but he met me halfway. “I just heard it again,” he said urgently. “It’s definitely a distress call. Something’s wrong.”

By now Steve’s wife, Suzanne, had come outside, too, and the three of us hurried, single file, through the wrought-iron gate into our backyard to investigate further. As we rounded the garden shed, we all heard it, a piercing, high-pitched cry, definitely coming from below the back terrace. Fanning out in different directions, we listened intently. There it was again! We all heard it!

Suzanne was standing closest to the pool. Suddenly she screamed. “Here it is! Here it is! It can’t get out!”

In the shadowy corner of our pool, a small fawn floated limply, droplets of blood dribbling from beneath its chin and spreading over the water’s surface. In a flash, Steve reached down with both hands, grasped the dripping baby, lifted it gently out of the chilly water, and placed it on the flagstones. Its eyes were shut tight and it shook uncontrollably.

Racing back into the house for a towel, I wrapped the shivering baby, pulled it onto my lap, and began rubbing it all over to restore circulation, just as I’d done with the newborn fawn right after its birth only a few weeks before. Was this the same baby? Was this Bambi Two?

Soon its dark eyes fluttered open, but there was no fear, only relief. As I continued the massage, gradually the violent shaking subsided into a gentle heaving of its mottled, spotted sides. Now we could see how Bambi Two had struggled. I blotted the abrasions under its chin where the skin had been scraped raw on the brick coping of the pool.

As Suzanne ran home for her camera, Steve and I speculated about what might have happened. The mama must have come to drink from our pool, accompanied by her two mismatched fawns. Perhaps the larger fawn had been able to successfully drink also. But the littler one, Bambi Two, with its shorter legs, must have had a harder time and ultimately tumbled in, then couldn’t get out. Who could tell how long the baby had thrashed about in the water as its anguished mama stood helplessly by, unable to do a single thing, despite its beseeching cries, to save her drowning baby?

 

Suzanne returned and snapped this picture. Then I wrapped the fawn in the towel again and continued stroking its head and ears until it dozed off, finally safe but completely exhausted.

After sharing a cup of hot tea and catching up on other neighborhood news, Suzanne and Steve returned to their chores, and I to mine. Every so often, I went back out to check on the fawn and scratch its ears. Still, it exhibited no fear. Two hours later, Bambi Two was gone

Crow-Baby, Cry-Baby

Several weeks ago, on my routine early morning bathrobe-and-coffee-cup patrol around the garden, a series of raucous cries shattered my reverie, noises not terribly unlike those of the tiny fawn who once fell into our straight-sided ornamental pool and would have drowned had it not been for its frantic shrieks for help.

Instantly alert, I listened for a few moments and then began to prowl my paths in an effort to locate the source of the present cries. Determining that the sound was coming from somewhere in the tall meadow grass below the main rock retaining wall, I headed in that direction, only to have the air go silent. I stopped and stood silent, listening. Nothing. Nothing for more than a minute. I retreated to a shady area and sat on the stone bench at the base of the ancient cedar to listen again.

The cries resumed, at first mournful and plaintive, but gradually escalating to an ear-splitting screech. Once more I ventured down into the meadow. Again the air went silent.

I don’t have time for this, I thought, and returned to the house to put my coffee cup in the dishwasher and throw on my gardening clothes. My list of chores was long. It included fetching the dolly from the garage to move a dozen heavy sacks of soil amendment, well-rotted manure, and potting soil from the back of my SUV to the spots where they were needed. I grunted and tugged the dolly up and down runs of rock steps connecting the different levels of the garden, steps built many years ago with my own hands, but with no regard for how difficult they’d be to navigate with a loaded dolly. I was only vaguely aware of the squalls coming from the meadow area. I couldn’t ignore the cries completely, though. If you’re a mother, you know that feeling.

Again I ventured down into the meadow, and again the cries stopped. But now my quest had become a mission. I retreated once more to the shade of the old cedar and plopped down on a moss-covered boulder to take up my vigil.

Presently a huge black crow appeared overhead, silhouetted against the bluest of skies as it swooped in narrowing circles and landed near the top of a ninety-foot Ponderosa pine just beyond the meadow’s lower boundary. Moments later it flew away. At first I paid no attention to the crow. I kept my eyes riveted on the meadow grasses in my effort to determine the source of the distress cries. Then I heard it again. I looked up. Finally I understood. The crying baby wasn’t a fawn at all, but a crow-baby fledging from its nest high up in the pine. I relaxed. Nothing was wrong. I’m not needed here. I went back to my chores.

For two weeks I listened to the crow-baby and watched this rite of passage. At first crow-mama fed the chick in place, returning every five minutes or so, gradually lengthening the intervals to ten, then fifteen. In between snacks, crow-baby yelled, its lungs obviously developing at a faster rate than its wings.

But now crow-mama began landing on another branch a few feet away, challenging crow-baby to work a bit for its meal. Oh, how it screeched, its voice indignant and demanding. If you’re a mother, you know that behavior too. I was disappointed that she held out for less than fifteen seconds before she flew back to the nest and shoved the morsel down the chick’s throat.

Late that afternoon crow-mama finally convinced the reluctant chick to try a four-foot mini-flight to a nearby branch. So far, so good. Then she hopped to another branch ten feet away. But crow-baby was having none of that. On its own, it flew back to the safety of the nest and again took up its raucous lament. What a cry-baby! I decided the chick had to be a male. I could imagine crow-mama’s exasperation as she flew off in a wide arc over the neighbor’s property and didn’t return for nearly an hour.

Several days of rain and wind kept me out of the garden. When next I caught sight of crow-baby, he was flapping his wings hard and chasing crow-mama from the nest to the six-inch candle atop another Ponderosa pine twenty or thirty feet away. The two birds were nearly the same size now. Good for you, crow-baby. You’re finally getting the hang of it. But when mama encouraged her youngster to try another hop, crow-baby’s courage vanished. He returned to the nest and refused to budge. Soon he was yelling again, but crow-mama flew away and stayed away the rest of the afternoon. Serves the kid right, I thought.

The next day, I saw crow-baby practice a couple of times alone, flying from the top of one pine to the next, but never more than twenty feet from the nest. At his insistence, crow-mama continued bringing him his meals. Late that afternoon the two of them finally flew off together.

Over the weekend, I worked in the garden in welcome peace and quiet, glad to have witnessed the conclusion of this miracle of nature. I didn’t see a single crow. Nor did I hear any. Probably they’ve all flown down to Pioneer Park to mooch scraps from the picnickers gathered there to take in the weekend outdoor concert.

Monday passed uneventfully. I had errands to run.

Yesterday was Tuesday. I went out early to plant two azaleas I’d gotten on sale Monday afternoon at my favorite nursery. What? What’s that? Screech, screech, screech! That crow-baby was back, perched on the edge of the nest and yelling his head off.

Should’ve changed the locks.

Who Needs Video Games?

From a clematis-covered pergola a dozen feet outside the window over my kitchen sink hangs a hummingbird feeder. I planned it this way. Nature’s garden gifts often come in the form of fleeting moments; if I’m not Johnny-on-the-spot to experience them, pffft, the opportunity is gone. The intimate world of the hummingbird feeder is like that. I cannot arbitrarily decide that “I want to see something wonderful, so I’ll take ten seconds out of my cluttered day and watch the garden.” It doesn’t work that way. But I have structured my surroundings so that, even as I tend to routine chores, within my field of vision are the spots where the magic might occur: the birdbath, the birdhouse, the hummingbird feeder.

Last night, an early spring storm pounded our community. Two inches of rain fell in less than an hour, imperiling unprepared drivers and knocking the buttercup-yellow faces of the daffodils along the freeway right down into the mud. Storms as heavy as this one, like late-season freezes, may do some damage, but the morning after—as though Mother Nature were offering an apology— often dawns brilliantly, enhancing every facet of the landscape. The air is nippy, not icy cold but invigorating, pulsating with new life and new possibilities. Colors boast psychedelic intensity, reflected in each raindrop that clings to a leaf or swelling bud. Deer, squirrels, rabbits, lizards, frogs, and a dozen bird species emerge from their shelters in search of breakfast and, more urgently, a mate.

This is one of those mornings, fairly glittering and pulsating with possibilities. As I stand at the kitchen counter grinding coffee beans, my attention is focused outside. Suddenly the sun picks up movement at the hummingbird feeder: a flash of copper, glowing like a hot coal, gone in an instant.

The regulars at my feeder are Anna hummingbirds, the females generally a dull, uninspiring greenish-brown but the males adorned in bright green with an otherworldly headscarf of iridescent hot pink. I see them all the time. They’re my friends, so predictable that the males will chirp loudly and swoop down and hover in front of me in the garden when the feeder is empty. Well, I call it a chirp; I understand they actually make the sound with their tail feathers as they fly a hundred feet into the air and then plummet at dizzying speeds back toward the earth.

But this isn’t an Anna. I watch intently. There it is again, that brief fiery glow of copper! Then a third time, hovering in the sunshine near the feeder. It’s smaller than an Anna, the color of a newly minted penny.

More than thirty years ago, my close friend and garden mentor, Harriett Hendrickson, taught me about Rufous hummingbirds. The most belligerent of all the hummers, they hold the title for unparalleled maneuverability. The Rufous are also migratory, traveling thousands of miles each season from their winter habitat in Texas, Louisiana, and northern Mexico to their preferred breeding grounds in western Canada and Alaska. In the spring, some of them follow a route that passes through the Sierra Nevada foothills in early April, and in late summer they head south again by a more easterly route, over the Rocky Mountains.

So the timing is right. It’s April 10th. My garden visitor is a Rufous.

As I watch, an Anna male darts toward the feeder. But the Rufous will have none of it. Though much smaller than the Anna, the feisty orange newcomer ruthlessly drives the Anna off, swooping and diving in a fury of whirring russet-colored wings, then returns to keep watch from a branch of the pink clematis vine covering the pergola, just beginning to leaf out. Over and over, the Anna returns and they skirmish, but each time, the Rufous wins the dogfight and triumphantly returns to his post on the vine to guard the feeder. He’s a selfish little beast. I never see him take a drink, but he’s not about to share his prize.

After fifteen minutes or so, I tear myself away from the ongoing war and serve breakfast, put in a load of wash, and then sit down at my computer to try to write. Suddenly, the Anna male is hovering just outside the window above my desk. Without warning, he darts forward and actually pecks on the window! Just a brief peck, but unmistakably meant for me. “Can’t you do something?” he seems to implore me. “It’s our feeder! That trashy orange pipsqueak doesn’t belong here! Can’t you make him go away?”

The action of the Anna confirms what I’ve long suspected; he actually is communicating with me! Except for crows—and maybe eagles and hawks—I’ve never heard much about the intelligence of wild birds, but I’m certain now they can and do try to interact with humans. As with most of the delightful gifts from my garden, all it takes is a bit of observing and listening—and keeping the feeder clean and well-stocked.

Two days later, the Rufous is gone. The Annas are peaceably dipping their needle-like beaks into the nectar of the feeder, two and three at a time. Do you suppose I got the credit?